By Amy Abdelsayed
Like so many other Americans, I am from a family of immigrants. My Egyptian grandparents came to this country with their three sons when my father was just a boy. None of them spoke English and they were very poor but that didn’t matter. They were starting a new life in a country where even the poorest of the poor, if they worked hard enough, could achieve wealth and honor. They fantasized about being characters of triumph in a “rags to riches” story told in the style of Horatio Alger – my grandparents were on a journey to reach the American Dream.
In 1971, American journalist Hunter S. Thompson went on his own journey to discover the American Dream. In his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas he uses Gonzo journalism to document and share his drug-induced experience traveling through 1970’s Las Vegas. Throughout the book, he frequently references and mocks the traditional ideals of Horatio Alger and takes stab at American consumerism and our cultural, overwhelming need to indulge.
But why did Thompson choose to search for the American Dream in Las Vegas? Why not choose a suburban town somewhere in the midwest where white picket fences are plentiful and families play outside in the yard with their golden retrievers?
For starters, the birth of Las Vegas is comparable to a small-scale version of the birth of the country of the United States. The U.S. was founded by immigrants and minorities, people who migrated to this country in hopes of escaping religious oppression, political oppression, poverty and just about anything else that can make one a misfit. When you really think about it, America was founded by rebels and oddballs. Our country’s history is based on rebellion against England and the innovative minds who thought differently from the norm during the 1600s, the 1700s and beyond. And just like a Russian Babushka doll, within this country of misfits hid a little city of even more misfits. It came equipped with casinos for gambling and show girls for entertainment. Las Vegas has broken all the rules since its growth in the 1920s and 1930s and continues to attract the rebels and weirdoes of the United States to this day.
Thompson uses this to his advantage on his Vegas trip when Duke and his attorney first arrive in Sin City tripping out on hallucinogens. He writes about checking in at the front desk of their hotel and the encounter Duke and his attorney have with the employee who helps them: “The woman shrugged as he led me away. In a town full of bedrock crazies, nobody even notices an acid freak” (p. 24). Welcome to Las Vegas! Nobody even questions them about their odd behavior and the woman at the front desk never even notices they are on drugs. From the get-go, Thompson is setting the tone that they are going to do these drugs and act however the drugs make them act, all the meanwhile blending in with Vegas society and culture.
Later, he goes on to say that “Las Vegas is a society of armed masturbators/gambling is the kicker here/sex is extra/weird trip for high rollers… house-whores for winners, hand jobs for the bad luck crowd” (p. 41). This brings me to my next point; the early inhabitants of Las Vegas created their own rules and precedents of what would be acceptable that have carried over to today – much like the framers of the constitution did for America. Although “legally” Las Vegas is bound by the same federal laws as any other city in the United States (and Nevada’s state laws of course), it seems easier to get away with a lot more here.
Thompson says, “In a closed society where everyone is guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity” (p. 72). Everybody just does what they want in Las Vegas. Everybody is guilty of something. Thompson is aware that everyone is breaking the rules, but believes that people in Vegas are not out to get you. They keep to themselves on legal matters. What good are the rules if they are not enforced?
He writes, “This is one of the Hallmarks of Vegas hospitality. Only bedrock rule is Don’t Burn the Locals. Beyond that, nobody cares. They would rather not know. If Charlie Manson checked into the Sahara tomorrow morning, nobody would hassle him as long as he tipped big” (p. 106).
That brings me to my third point. The core of Horatio Alger’s American Dream is that anybody can build a life for themselves and will reach success as long as they work hard, be honest and follow a moral path. The characters in Alger’s books took years of honest hard work before they felt the positive consequences of their actions. His stories had a moral undertone.
And yet, here is Thompson writing about his quest for the American Dream in Las Vegas, a city which thrives on gambling. In Vegas, with a little bit of luck, any Joe Schmoe off the street can strike the big bucks in a matter of minutes. Seconds, even. Winners could be rapists, murderers, kidnapers, liars, thieves, whatever – all it takes is the right gamble. What a slap in the face to Horatio Alger! It’s like Thompson is saying screw your fluffy moral bedtime stories and welcome to the real world. Welcome to Las Vegas. Welcome to America.
At the beginning of the book, Duke goes out to the casinos at around 3am. Thompson writes, “Still humping the American Dream, that vision of the Big Winner somehow emerging from the last-minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino” (p. 57).
Fear and Loathing, from the very beginning of Duke and his attorney’s journey to the end when Duke is leaving Vegas, is one totally twisted, messed up version of Horatio Alger’s American Dream. Think Ragged Dick (1868) set in the heart of the American drug culture and tripped out on acid.
Thompson’s version of the American Dream is far darker then Alger’s, but I also think it is more accurate. What is the final product of the American Dream anyway, what is the goal? If it is to go from having nothing to having something, then Duke and his attorney surely found the American Dream before the book even started. Right away on page one; the two are already driving around in a Red Chevy convertible on their way to check in at a Las Vegas Suite.
Throughout the book they spend money frivolously. Duke charges things to credit cards with no intention of ever paying them off. (Sound familiar?) Duke and his attorney buy junk just to buy it and trash luxury items without an ounce of guilt: going from one convertible rental and destroying it to another one, or hopping from hotel suite to the next leaving everywhere they stay a gross neglected mess.
By setting the stage in Las Vegas, Thompson puts the American Dream in perspective. The things we strive for and the lifestyle we want, the one that we think every hard working American deserves, is really unnecessary. He even writes about knowing that he is blowing his money and spending in excess:
“I went back to the airport souvenir counter and spent the rest of my cash on garbage – complete shit, souvenirs of Las Vegas, plastic fake-Zippo-lighters with built-in roulette wheel for $6.95, JFK half-dollar money clips for $5 each, tin apes that shook dice for $7.50… I loaded up on this crap, then carried it out to the Great Red Shark and dumped it in the back seat… and then I stepped into the driver’s seat in a very dignified way (the white top was rolled back, as always) and I sat there and turned the radio on and began thinking. How would Horatio Alger handle this situation?” (p. 69-70)
What are we striving for? The whole idea of achieving the American Dream, in the end, is laughed at. Thompson pokes fun at American consumerism which is, at some level, the heart of the American dream. We want money so we can buy things. Things we don’t even need or don’t appreciate. Las Vegas, as a city, is the prime example of excessive spending on ridiculous things.
Horatio Alger told motivational stories that inspired an optimistic way of thinking. He encouraged immigrants to work hard with the knowledge that eventually they would find their way in this land of opportunity. A little over a century later, Hunter S. Thompson went to Las Vegas and surfaced a darker truth. If you want to find the American Dream, your best bet is to take some Ambien and fall asleep.